"Let books be your dining table, / And you shall be full of delights. / Let them be your
And you shall sleep restful nights" (St. Ephraim the Syrian).

Monday, September 26, 2016

Eternal Memory to Jonathan Riley-Smith, Doyen of Crusades Scholars

I was saddened to learn of the recent death of the doyen of Crusades historians and scholars, Jonathan Riley-Smith of the University of Cambridge (into whose doctoral program I was admitted in 2000, before ultimately turning them down). Shortly before his appointment before the awesome tribunal of Christ, he penned this sagacious and moving reflection on the process of dying, which I commend to your attention. Until reading it, I was not aware of his being a Catholic, nor the depth of his faith.

It is, I think, a compelling testimony to his scholarship that in treating the Catholic Church's role in the Crusades he never once comes off as an apologist for his faith, of whose adoption you would not get any hints from reading him. He was a scholar of the old school, content to let the evidence take him where it did without imposing an ideological agenda upon it. In this regard, he avoided the temptation of what another great historian, Robert Taft, calls "confessional propaganda" offered in the place of genuine history.

I have relied on Riley-Smith's books in my classes for years, including as recently as this summer when I taught a course on ISIS and the Crusades, looking at the historiographical issues involved in the former's abuse of the latter to justify attacks on everybody from Japan to France and the United States.

For this latter purpose, I had my students read Riley-Smith's short but accessible work The Crusades, Christianity, and Islam. Its power, especially in the era of ISIS, comes from the fact that he shows, calmly and clearly, how little Muslims cared about the Crusades--indeed, how very little they had even heard of the Crusades--until the turn of the last century when fatuous would-be Christians like the doltish Kaiser Wilhelm II started talking them up again carelessly in an effort to promote a more Christian martial spirit.

Unapologetic as I am about the use of maps to understand history and religious traditions, I have also found Riley-Smith's The Atlas of the Crusades to be enormously valuable. So too, but more widely, is his The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades.

Part of Riley-Smith's early research was the recognition that there were multiple forms of "Crusading," and multiple institutions involved, including military orders such as the Hospitallers: The History of the Order of St. John, first treated by him decades ago, and now in an updated Kindle version.

Before the Crusades were enacted, they first had to be thought, and part of Riley-Smith's early research that was especially valuable was his investigation into what the Cruaders themselves thought they were doing. These researches are especially important still today because they go a very long distance towards debunking the slanderous nonsense that Christians sat about thinking up bloodthirsty schemes by which--proto-colonialists or neo-imperialists that they were--they could steal land and life from poor besotted Muslims and Jews. Thus The First Crusade and the Idea of Crusading goes a considerable distance into the minds of those doing the Crusading, and those involved on the peripheries of those, such as various popes.

Riley-Smith authored comprehensive surveys of the Crusades, and updated them regularly, as with his 2015 The Crusades: A History: Third Edition.

But he was also the author of many scholarly articles on individual aspects of the Cruades, and for those with access to such journals you will find many riches. To give just a taste: his 1980 article in History: The Journal of the Historical Association, gives us a perhaps characteristic approach: "Crusading as an Act of Love." The very title runs so profoundly counter to the usual portrayal of the Crusades but it was Riley-Smith's genuinely magisterial achievement serenely to disregard current fashions and nasty political orthodoxies and instead try to bring the past to life on its own terms, so far as possible, and let us get into the mind of those whose efforts we so facilely slander even before we have understood them.

Thus it was Riley-Smith's achievement (and later others) to show us that, indeed, the Crusaders--some of them--saw their actions as manifesting love for their own souls (Crusades as acts of penance), for their persecuted Eastern Christian brethren (Crusades as acts of liberation), and even in some cases for the Muslims who had to be brought to Christ (Crusades as acts of evangelization and conversion).

May his labors of scholarly love continue to bear fruit in the years ahead, and may Jonathan Riley-Smith's memory be eternal!

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